For the August issue of Jacobin Magazine, Sam Wetherell analyzes urban theorist Richard Florida’s apparent about-face on the benefits of luring members of the “creative class” to depressed cities in need of revitalization.
Governmental leaders in major cities around the world have used Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, as a bible for urban renewal. Florida contended that attracting artists, writers, musicians, graphic designers, people in technology and other creative fields would be an economic boon.
If you live in an urban center in North America, the United Kingdom, or Australia, you are living in Richard Florida’s world. Fifteen years ago, he argued that an influx of what he called the “creative classes” — artists, hipsters, tech workers — were sparking economic growth in places like the Bay Area. Their tolerance, flexibility, and eccentricity dissolved the rigid structures of industrial production and replaced them with the kinds of workplaces and neighborhoods that attracted more young people and, importantly, more investment.
His observations quickly formed the basis of a set of breezy technical solutions. If decaying cities wanted to survive, they had to open cool bars, shabby-chic coffee shops, and art venues that attract young, educated, and tolerant residents. Eventually, the mysterious alchemy of the creative economy would build a new and prosperous urban core.
What Florida didn’t expect was that his formula would mostly help those already rich and lead to the displacement of those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder — something he all but apologizes for in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It.
After fifteen years of development plans tailored to the creative classes, Florida surveys an urban landscape in ruins. The story of London is the story of Austin, the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and Sydney. When the rich, the young, and the (mostly) white rediscovered the city, they created rampant property speculation, soaring home prices, and mass displacement. The “creative class” were just the rich all along, or at least the college-educated children of the rich.